Art by Kevin Tobin
Other images courtesy of the authors
Christopher Stoddard: I just wanted to say congratulations on such a monumental accomplishment. Pulling together fifty years of work—I mean, that’s pretty amazing.
Bruce Benderson: There’s one thing that makes it even more pleasurable: I get to have a book come out at the same time as yours, and you were my student, so to see you having risen to such a level of literary expertise warms my desiccated old heart.
CS: Well, thank you, I learned from the best. In fact, working with you helped inform the mantra of my press, which is to publish writing focused on daring and provocative themes—or “transgressive,” as they used to call it—that some of the mainstream publishers might shy away from. Your collection of stories fully embodies that. And I like to think that most of my own books I put out share the sensibility.
BB: Yeah, I’ve been called “transgressive” during the length of my career—and often ignored as a result. Until lately, it seemed to be getting worse rather than better. The more experienced I got, the more uninterested “they” all seemed to be. This anthology of all my short texts should prove to be the icing on the cake. It’s every short text I’ve ever written, going all the way back to 1970. As I was pulling it together, it became apparent how much politically incorrect stuff there is in there—from the names people use for each other to the really different ways people looked at gender in the past. There was a temptation to update some of it to make it seem more in tune with current values. But I came to the decision that we all have a responsibility to keep the historical record accurate—especially for people who were not alive in those days. They need to see how we all talked and behaved in those times. So, I didn’t change a word of any of my old stories.
CS: I was a little nervous about some of the language, but it certainly does reflect the times in which the stories were written. And while it may be off-putting to some readers, I think it’s important that they learn about the progression of language—what was once deemed socially acceptable in the style we communicate with each other.
BB: Why do I have to take the entire rap, Chris? Let’s talk about your book and the many ways it violates norms—in quite an original way, may I add. You’re writing about the industry of advertising, which has changed so radically since the Mad Men years that it seems, in some ways, a bit specious. They are very much pushing socially progressive values and attaching them to products because they’ve determined that it’s the new way to sell things. Rather than interrupting people with ads that they’ll scroll past or switch channels on, they’re trying to convince consumers that they have the same values and same beliefs that they have, that they are just as woke as they are. And your novel, well, it satirizes that shift in strategy while at the same time showing that the lifestyles of the employees who work to express these values for the purpose of selling products are anything but politically correct. It’s this tension between their real lives and what they’re doing at work that makes your book fascinating. In fact, I haven’t seen any writing yet that illustrates the ways advertising has changed, except for your book. I think it’s going to be a startling read for some people.
“BB: ’My coming-out story from 1970 is nothing like the coming-out story you tend to see today. In mine, the guy finally realizes he must be gay because, first, he’s impotent during his first heterosexual encounter, and very humiliated by it. So he flees that scene by hitchhiking and gets picked up by a couple of farmers in a truck, who pressure him into the most obscene, sexual, perverted first gay encounter imaginable. That story is very close to my coming out. It had little to do with, ‘Oh, I learned to accept myself, that I too had the right to love.’ My coming-out story was, ‘Shit, I guess that’s what I like, and it sure did feel good, disgusted with myself as I am. So, fuck it. I know it’s wrong, but I’m gonna keep doing it.’ Ha, ha.”
CS: I do feel that a lot of the work in advertising has become extremely paradoxical, and my book does center around the theme of leveraging social interests or orientations related to race and gender and sexuality to promote product. My book is called The Virtuous Ones because most of the characters in the book who work in advertising and PR don’t understand the full import—or the blatant contradictions—of what they’re doing or the repercussions it has on their personal lives. Just as you said, they’re living these completely opposite existences, and a good percentage may not even believe in some of the positions that they’re touting, or in the creative content they’re producing.
BB: Okay, let’s be bold and talk about some of these woke positions and the way they are being used in business. We might want to discuss them in relation to the positions of the past. In a previous conversation, you actually said to me that you thought that, in general, things are better now than they were in my generation. You must have known that you were pushing my buttons when you came out with that one.
CS: I mean, I do think that in some respects things have improved in terms of how accepting we’ve become of various minority groups, and especially when it comes to gender and sexuality, all of which I was mentioning when you exploded. I was thinking of a lot of controversial topics that exist today, such as gay marriage or trans visibility—you’re not going to flip out on me again, are you?
BB: No, I’m feeling calmer now, especially if you’ll allow me to hold forth with a few examples. What about sex and sexual orientation? We may have gay marriage, but in the old days, I could walk into a bar, whether it was a bar filled with my peers or a bar frequented by people of other classes and have a three-hour conversation with somebody before I went home with them. Not only was I able to examine that person’s body, which I admit is the first thing I did, but I was also able to get a fairly good idea of who I was bringing home and whether they were dangerous or interesting. Now you fucking meet somebody online, they come to your door, and if they’re fatter than their picture, you’re supposed to slam the door in their face! Well, I can’t do that. Okay? It sucks.
CS: I can relate to that. But if we look at your coming-out story, “Myra,” which you wrote way back in 1970, shortly after Stonewall, the characters who bring the boy out seem like they came straight out of the movie Deliverance. It’s a violent coming out—with none of the self-acceptance we now associate with that process. It’s downright scary. Or is it that people just don’t talk about that today? Because, honestly, a lot of the ways that many gay men have come to terms with their sexuality—even today—are the result of such “seedy” encounters, sometimes with dangerous people. And today, I think we tend to try to glaze over such experiences and are more comfortable discussing love and romance and marriage.
BB: Yes. My coming-out story from 1970 is nothing like the coming-out story you tend to see today. In mine, the guy finally realizes he must be gay because, first, he’s impotent during his first heterosexual encounter, and very humiliated by it. So he flees that scene by hitchhiking and gets picked up by a couple of farmers in a truck, who pressure him into the most obscene, sexual, perverted first gay encounter imaginable. That story is very close to my coming out. It had little to do with, “Oh, I learned to accept myself, that I too had the right to love.” My coming-out story was, “Shit, I guess that’s what I like, and it sure did feel good, disgusted with myself as I am. So, fuck it. I know it’s wrong, but I’m gonna keep doing it.” Ha ha.
CS: I admit I’ve had similar experiences. But tell me, what was it like going through fifty years of work when you pulled this book together? I myself resonate so personally with my work. Going back to it can almost be traumatizing. It brings up a lot of hurt or loss from the past. How hard was it for you to look back all the way to your very early twenties?
BB: The thing that startled me the most was the discovery that, style-wise, at twenty-two I was writing almost exactly the same way I write now. My narrative craft seemed just as economical and just as articulate as the type I favor today. So I started thinking, where did I learn all that? And I remembered seeing a document that my older brother, who’s a lawyer, was working on and thinking the style resembled mine, which made me remember that our parents made both of us take Latin in high school. It hit me that Cicero was responsible for my style. Cicero, with his long sentences and dependent clauses—my having to translate his writing from Latin. Oh, my God, I thought, I’ve been copying Cicero all my life without being aware of it.
The other thing that happened was the release of a lot of buried memories. In my archives I found a lengthy typed manuscript I’d forgotten about that was inspired by a lover who later committed suicide. And other disturbing feelings resurfaced too. I found myself thinking stuff like, did I really do that with that junkie? The one who was shooting up in my bedroom with blood gushing out of the needle all over my pillow, while I was telling myself I was deeply in love with him? As a matter of fact, the biggest realization was about how much time I’d wasted on sexual pursuits. I’m no longer a big supporter of perpetual promiscuity—not for moral reasons, but because it’s a time-waster.
CS: Funny you should mention that change of opinion. As a recent transplant to Los Angeles, I’ve found myself getting more involved in spirituality as it was discussed in the past. I’ve been reading books by Alan Watts and Ram Dass. And one of the things both are saying is that becoming a little more enlightened and aware of the present will help you to transcend your lust in relationships and orient you toward more meaningful development. In other words, it’s more evolved not to focus so much on wants and desire because those things are in danger of consuming you and cutting you off from true happiness.
BB: I couldn’t agree more. Too bad I didn’t learn that until my seventies, because now nobody’s interested anyway. Your book, on the other hand, has a very compelling portrait of a contemporary gay guy with a very important job in advertising who’s also compulsively promiscuous and uses a lot of drugs, and he fucks up an account worth millions because of his interest in sex and cocaine. It’s hilarious and totally disturbing at the same time.
CS: It’s just that he’s in need of constant stimulation and always compelled to move on to “the next thing.” He’s impulsive.
BB: Isn’t that the basis of promiscuity?
CS: Yes. But giving into impulse and living a mostly hidden and hedonistic lifestyle is in part a product of working in advertising, because a lot of their work is so disingenuous. That character’s behavior reflects on a lot of people who work on the agency side of things.
BB: That’s the best thing about your book, in my opinion. It’s filled with people acting superficial but managing to evolve in certain ways. Somehow you managed to tie all that to character development, which I found fascinating.
CS: Yes, but whereas my narrative does focus on such things, it also takes a serious look at key social movements that were climaxing around the time the book takes place. The Black Lives Matter movement is one obvious example. I think I tried to show how important such movements are, even though some of the white characters in the book who participate—or rather, claim to—are doing it because it looks good on social media. There’s a self-serving element. They’re looking for “likes” as much as they’re looking to do good.
BB: Oh my, you’re pressing my hoary old buttons again. What you said made me think of Catherine Deneuve signing a letter written in France by a group of women stating that they think flirting is an important aspect of male-female relations. So what happens to poor Deneuve, who was one of many signers? Another actress, whom I won’t dignify by naming, publicly conjectured that Deneuve signed the letter because “she must be senile.” Lovely: using ageism in defense of the #MeToo movement.
What I hate most about all of that is that no one ever mentions that many women are still being raised to think they can’t make it on their own and need to be protected. They need the police, or the courts. As the columnist Rosie DiManno wrote in the Toronto Star, women shouldn’t be thought of as “snowflakes” or “the weaker sex” who “need our husbands and our brothers and the New York Times to rescue us.” Most men have been educated so much in the opposite direction—educated to have agency—and if this had happened to me, I would have said, “Okay, yeah, suck my dick and get it over with, if that’s so important. Then let’s discuss the movie you’re putting me in.” Or I would have made my displeasure known in a very assertive way, not even barring violence, and my guess is that many other men would react the same way. If women are not being raised to protect themselves and to stand up for themselves, they won’t do well in such situations.
CS: Okay, but on the flip side, I’ve personally experienced through my jobs in the corporate world women who’ve been sexually harassed or violated in some other way, even though I do think that some people are approaching it in a very extreme and illogical way. Despite that, too many cases do bring to light the oppression that women have experienced in various industries, and I think it’s important to call that out, but I also think we need to be careful.
BB: Fine. Quite probably, what’s currently happening in the Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo movement are merely passing stages during which we have to accept what I hope is a temporary but incredible divisiveness in American society. For as long as I’ve lived, I’ve never seen so much of this. And it’s all around these issues. So far, we’re not accomplishing what the people who brought up these issues hoped for. We’re merely dividing our country in a very brutal way, and some people are using these issues very opportunistically.
CS: You yourself have written in the past about the various clashes between classes and other groups within our metropolises. So, I wouldn’t say what’s happening now is anything new. Maybe it’s just being taken to a different level at the current time?
BB: Yeah, it’s not like things were ever fair. As I mention in the preface to my book, my stories were written at a time when the powerful were the ones defining and naming people who were less powerful. It was wrong. But now the way that it’s being dealt with isn’t a complete solution. Your novel deals with that subject. I’m talking about the scene in which a woman is attacked sexually in such a vicious manner that all she can do to defend herself is commit murder. She’s up against a very brutal rapist who is also a very famous guy, and he… Oops, spoiler alert! I’ll just say that, in my opinion, that is feminism: standing up for yourself and correcting something bad no matter what it takes. Not appealing to substitute daddy figures like lawyers or cops.
CS: Another interesting similarity about both our books is that a lot of the characters tend to come from non-bourgeois backgrounds.
BB: Which of your characters are you talking about?
CS: One of the main characters, Ella. She comes from a lower-middle-class background, and now that she’s risen in the world of advertising, she’s leading a kind of fake life. She’s got the fancy clothes, she’s making plenty of money, and she’s working at this highbrow boutique advertising agency. Yet, in many ways she’s still that person from the past. This comes through as she deals with a lot of stressful situations, ultimately using her background to empower herself and fight back.
BB: That’s another aspect of your novel I love. You showed how little these people who have managed to advance so far economically have looked inward. They’re not in touch with their impulses and what these impulses mean. Until they’re forced to confront themselves. I guess they fucking need psychotherapy.
CS: Not exactly, Bruce. In some ways, several of my characters are self-aware, but it’s working to their detriment, because they’re also judging themselves at the same time, which is the source of their stress and anxiety and, ultimately, their drug use and promiscuity—their way of dealing with such trauma.
CS: I know you know that my novel is ultimately a satire, and although it’s a very bleak one, there are definitely some humorous elements to it. Your book also has a text that takes place in an advertising agency, and it’s a satire as well. It’s called “Persistent Patsy,” and it’s rife with dark humor.
BB: Mm hmm, the character’s name is Patsy and she’s “persistently” a “patsy”—ha, ha—so the title is a pun. It’s about a middle-aged woman who has been a proofreader at the same advertising firm for years. All that time she’s been trying to rise to the level of copywriter and has been kept back. Worse, she was once also a very hot Club Kid who wore wigs and cellophane dresses to clubs and got a lot of attention for it. But now she’s too old for that. She’s just an aging proofreader all the younger employees ignore. When a very attractive man who’s a new employee arrives, she mistakenly begins to think that he will change all of that, and it ends in absolute disaster.
CS: Advertising in general can be very ageist. They say that in advertising, you “age out” after fifty and begin to be considered irrelevant in that world. It’s definitely one of the big fears of all the ad people I know. Myself included—which is partly why I was ready to move into another kind of job and ultimately did.
BB: Well, my story isn’t based on anyone in particular, unless it’s an inner “me.” It’s just a satire.
CS: Speaking of satires, my favorite story of yours remains the satire about Nancy Reagan.
BB: The one called “Pretending to Say No.” Well, that’s the story Dale Peck chose for his anthology, The Soho Press Book of ’80s Short Fiction… But I wonder if Nancy Reagan ending up in a crack house while in search of magenta thread to fix her hem would get as many laughs today.
CS: I saw you perform that story at Theatre 80 St. Marks in the East Village as part of the Howl Festival. It was amazing.
BB: It’s very political. Nancy Reagan tries to show equality and understanding to these dirt-poor people whose only living is drug dealing, and the things that she says reveal her cluelessness and entitlement without her even being aware of it. It was written at the time when the Reagans were trying to deal with AIDS and the drug epidemic. I wanted to show how absolutely uncaring and self-involved they were. So it is a comedy of manners. That’s what those things used to be called.
CS: Your book also contains two very long parodies of old-fashioned noir—detective novels—clearly inspired by the language that Dashiell Hammett or one of those writers would have used but at the same time mercilessly satirizing it. My favorite is “Recommendations for the Mass Production of Teenagers,” which was written using a lot of ’50s noir lingo, and as a result the copyeditor had such a hard time with it. For me, that story is reminiscent of your novel Pacific Agony, because both use outrageous footnotes to undercut what’s happening in the text above them.
BB: That title, “Recommendations for the Mass Production of Teenagers,” was intended to parody those Soviet handbooks for increasing production on farms or in factories. I was hinting that children are raised in just such a cookie-cutter way. If you were middle class, growing up in the ’50s was a bit like being “mass-produced,” because we were all being taught to believe in the same things and to dress and behave in the same way. I really get my jollies in that story bashing the nuclear family, something I’m always ready to do. One of the footnotes goes on for quite a long time, accusing “breeders” of being people who have no sense of direction and have decided to use children as “implantation devices” for their unresolved insecurities and lack of self-awareness.
CS: I remember you telling me that the only creative thing the average person can do is make a baby, which embodies the extent to which we’ve lost our imagination and are looking for a readymade set of values to live by—family values. You touch on the same thing in your book Against Marriage, where you portray marriage as yet another way of assimilating us into the mainstream.
BB: Yes, absolutely. I’m against marriage. I’m not against gay marriage per se. I’m against all marriage, because I do not believe that a sacred ritual should have any legal significance. Separate Church and State, for fucking sake! Have your weddings and any religious ceremonies you want. But I was hoping that, instead of fighting for marriage, LGBTQIA people would fight for universal domestic partnership, so that their inheritance and their health-care decisions would be secured. Instead, they put all their reliance on an institution that has proven to be one of the most unstable social establishments there is: fucking marriage. Give me a fucking break!
CS: Well, as someone who will be married in the near future, I think you can interpret marriage as you wish, but I do value its various legal protections for couples, especially as you get older. And I also think there’s something special about announcing your love and devotion for someone in front of your friends and family. What follows doesn’t necessarily have to be the kind of life the world is prescribing for you.
BB: Who’s that incredibly handsome hulk who just walked by behind you? That’s your future husband, right? What a looker, you lucky bastard!
CS: I rest my case, Bruce!
Bruce Benderson is a novelist, essayist and translator whose most well-known book, The Romanian: Story of an Obsession, was awarded the prestigious Prix de Flore in its French edition. Other publications include the essay collection Sex and Isolation, the novels Pacific Agony and User, and the story collection Pretending to Say No. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Libération and many other American and French publications. He regularly translates books from the French.
Christopher Stoddard is the author of four novels and the founder of Itna Press. His most recent book, At Night Only, was praised by Kirkus Reviews and PEN award-winning author Edmund White, and was a staff pick in The Paris Review. For more than a decade, he worked at various ad agencies in New York City. He lives in Los Angeles.
Kevin Tobin's (b.1989, London, Ontario) lurid paintings explore primal aspects of the body as an inherently amoral, animalistic machine optimized for pleasure and violence. Tobin frequently uses the image of a bat as an ambiguously benevolent or malevolent sentient force. He often utilizes medical photography and painterly abstraction to collapse interior and exterior anatomies, and circumvent the didactic politics of identity in the service of making figurative painting mysterious again. His exhibitions include Lubov, NY (solo); Salon 94, NY; The Pit, LA; Fragment Gallery, Moscow; and 68 Projects, Berlin. Tobin lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.